Jolie Rose Lombardo performing at ADC | IBC prior to her diagnosis. Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy Stephanie Lombardo

Jolie Rose Lombardo's Journey Back to Ballet After Spinal Surgery

It was mid-January when 15-year-old Jolie Rose Lombardo first noticed the leg pain. A scholarship student at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany, the Florida native felt fine dancing through full days of classes and completing her regular school schedule. It was only at night that what appeared to be sciatic pain would shoot down her right leg when she tried to lie down, making resting difficult. After a few sleepless nights, spent mostly standing up, she went to the doctor for an X-ray, followed by an MRI.


Courtesy Angel Tisdale

New Beginnings

2019 had started out on a high note: Lombardo was coming off a year where she had won gold at ADC | IBC in St. Petersburg, Florida, and she was the Junior Gold medal recipient at Youth America Grand Prix in New York City. Using her YAGP scholarship, she had recently started training full-time at the John Cranko Schule. The day of her MRI, she'd found out that YAGP wanted her to perform a pas de deux at their gala in April.

A Shocking Diagnosis

An image of Lombardo's tumor

Courtesy Stephanie Lombardo

Meanwhile at the doctor's office, accompanied by a family friend, the news she received was far more serious than expected: Lombardo had a tumor on her spine, and it needed to be removed immediately. "He told me that it was extremely close to the spinal cord," says Lombardo, "so if I didn't have the surgery as soon as possible there was a 100-percent chance of me being paralyzed, permanently." Though the surgery would be risky and invasive, not having it would be much worse.

Thirty hours later, Lombardo was on a flight back to the U.S., while her mom researched surgeons who could perform the operation. Shortly after she landed, she was admitted to Scottish Rite Hospital, a children's hospital in Atlanta, to prepare for surgery.

Road to Recovery

For the first three days after the operation, Lombardo had to lie on her stomach (it wasn't safe to move her spine after it had been put under so much pressure) and was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. It was then that the full impact of what had happened began to set in. "All I can remember is telling my mom over and over again, 'I never realized how much I loved ballet until I couldn't move,' " she says. "Just the possibility that I would never be able to move again was overwhelming." Though the surgery had gone as planned and the tumor had been removed, she knew how close a call it had been.

During that time, Lombardo's mom set up a computer on her hospital bed so that she could watch ballet videos. "That was all I did while I was laying there, besides thinking that I have to be able to dance again," Lombardo says.

On the fourth day, she was able to move, but she knew full recovery would be a long journey. She was in a wheelchair for a few days, then progressed to using a walker in the hallway outside her hospital room. As a ballet dancer, Lombardo was used to feeling strong, but now her coordination felt off, and she would have muscle spasms. "I didn't realize how much the spinal cord affects your entire body," she says. "Everything was relaxing or giving out at random points. I'd have my phone in my hand and I would drop it, or I would have my arm on a chair and it would fall."

High-Tech Training: Muscle Measurements and Zero Gravity

Lombardo, here at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital, has a surgical scar in her mid-back.

Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital, Courtesy Stephanie Lombardo

Lombardo knew she would need to go to full-day rehabilitation in order to get back to dance as fast as possible, and she was determined to recover in time to perform at YAGP's April gala. After eight days in the hospital, she moved back home to Jacksonville, Florida, where she started at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital. Brooks had just started a day treatment program for spinal cord injuries and disorders, and Lombardo became their very first patient. "Once I got to Brooks Rehab, I was there all day, every day," she says. She started with occupational and physical therapy, and gradually progressed to incorporating small dance exercises. After several weeks, she brought some marley from home and practiced a few relevés in her pointe shoes, doing a little bit more each day.

The facility had machines to help measure each muscle and make sure she was strengthening them equally and evenly. "I could look on a screen, and I would move a toe or go on relevé, and it would tell me how much effort I'm putting into my right leg instead of my left leg," she says. "It helped me in the long run to be more in touch with my body and what muscles I'm using. Even today I'm envisioning that machine, trying to get myself more in balance." She also got hooked up to zero-gravity machines, so she could practice jumps without placing impact on her spine. Just like in ballet class, she wrote down her corrections and exercises every day.

Back to the Studio

After five weeks in the rehab program, Lombardo was able to get back to regular dance classes. One of her former teachers from Orlando Ballet School (where she trained before John Cranko) offered to give her private lessons. "My very first class, I was the happiest I have ever been in my entire life, just to be able to stand at a barre and do pliés," Lombardo says. She also attended this year's ADC in Florida to take class, and spent a couple weeks training with associate professor of dance Qianping Guo at the University of Alabama, where her sister is a student.

In the end, Lombardo didn't perform at YAGP—she decided it wasn't worth rushing and risking her long-term recovery—but she did attend the gala and was invited to take the stage as a presenter in the awards ceremony. Then, three months after first leaving Germany, she flew back to the John Cranko Schule, just in time to prepare for exams.

These days, she's back to her regular schedule in Stuttgart, continuing to do her exercises from rehab and taking extra dance classes to catch up. "I would like to say I'm at 98 percent of where I was before surgery," says Lombardo. She's looking into summer intensives in the U.S., and plans to spend some time visiting family before a new year at John Cranko begins in September. Mostly, she's just happy to be dancing again. "Everyone that has helped me through this process, I feel so close to now, because they have made this whole experience a lot more positive than it could've been," she says. "I'm so grateful."

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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